Mass incarceration’s harmful impact on American society

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The damaging effects of our flawed prison system

Prison is the consequence that our criminal justice system has set forth in order to deter crime. Many would argue that those who conduct themselves in illegal activity got what they had coming to them; that there is no reason to advocate for any change in the overall prison system. Leading the world in mass incarceration, the United States holds approximately five percent of the world’s population, yet we hold 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Is this beneficial to society? Who does this “get tough on crime” culture help, especially when dealing with minor infractions?

Take marijuana use, for instance. There are two ways to go about drug use; we can either view it as something to criminalize, or we can view it as a very real struggle, a burden in which we can push to provide greater help. As a society, we have collectively chosen the former. With minimum sentencing implemented, the “War on Drugs” has made it so that if you are caught possessing marijuana, you will do time.

In April, The Huffington Post reported on a Louisiana man who is currently serving a 13-year sentence for being caught with two joints of marijuana. Being raised in an impoverished, single-parent household, Bernard Noble turned to marijuana to deal with the burden of raising his young brothers and sisters. While buying bread for his restaurant, he was caught possessing weed. He is now sitting in prison without a single violent encounter on his record, while leaving seven children at home without a father. This is not an uncommon story. We are not protecting families; we are hurting them.

So, what happens in prison? A process of dehumanization. Specific wording in the 13th amendment allows companies to rely on cheap labor provided by inmates in for-profit prisons, essentially using those inmates as indentured servants. Rehabilitation should be the main goal; that is the human response. Instead, we make sure prisoners know they are the bottom of society, and that they should be treated as such. This is easily internalized. Take a look at third-grade teacher Jane Elliot’s iconic 1970 experiment where she divided her class between those with blue eyes and those with brown eyes. When one group was treated less humanely than the others, their behavior began to correlate. Even though this experiment was meant to illustrate the effect of racial discrimination, the psychological aspects still apply.

But actually, the race aspect is quite a factor here. Gathering data from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Census Bureau, Human Rights Watch was able to report that blacks are more likely to be incarcerated for drug-related crimes. However, they make up just over 15 percent of arrested drug users. Whites are simply less likely to go to jail for marijuana use. Our system of mass incarceration is adding to the gaping hole of racial disparity, not healing it.

When one is let out from prison, they have a record, a mark that follows them and fights against any sort of progress a former inmate might attempt to make in society. A survey conducted by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights found that 76 percent of former inmates found it nearly impossible to become employed after being released from jail. So, many released from jail often turn back to illegal activity as the only viable option.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Democratic presidential candidate has been an advocate for prison reform.

“It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids,” Sanders said at a CNN debate in Las Vegas.

In reference to the amount of joblessness, family breakdown and overall disadvantage in low-income neighborhoods in America, researchers from the National Research Council of the National Academies stated that “there is little question that incarceration has become another strand in the complex combination of negative conditions that characterize high-poverty communities in U.S. cities.”

Seeing lives destroyed is heart breaking, yet our society remains calloused towards it. “The War on Drugs” has been a failure, and our jails continue to serve as an economic hurdle. Obama recently made it his agenda to release over 6,000 inmates from our federal prison system. This is good first step, but it is time for us to enact major reform. Mass incarceration is not beneficial.